If you like to gamble, race cars, assemble jigsaw puzzles, go fishing, play pinball and paper dolls, all while chatting with your friends, have I got a site for you! If you haven’t heard of Gaia Online yet, you will again soon. According to an article on GigaOM posted in April of 2007, Gaia’s formidably diverse forums are “second only to Yahoo in popularity,” and this was over a year ago.
Once lumped in with websites like Neopets, Gaia is now popularly being compared to Facebook and MySpace. But while Facebook and MySpace (among others) encourage users to post actual photos of themselves, at Gaia, users create their own images, and continue to re-create them every sixty seconds if they wish, through the use of avatars (the “paper dolls” mentioned above). Only a small fraction of users include pictures of themselves in their profiles and signatures, which I see as a huge plus in a world where anonymity would seem to be the safest route.
However, having a unique, nearly fully customizable avatar represent you in the forums and world of Gaia offers users the chance to have a face and personality that other message boards and online forums do not. Most Gaians keep their avatars largely consistent (same eyes, same hairstyles, but with a few costume changes), making Gaia’s users recognizable to each other, just as people are in real life.
Sure, Gaia likes to tag itself as “the world’s fastest growing online world hangout for teens,” but to me this seems like wishful thinking, and not because Gaia isn’t growing quickly (it is!), but because out of the ten people I briefly surveyed, only one of them was under the age of twenty, and only two had never before heard of Gaia.
Back when Gaia first started in 2003, it was largely a hangout for anime fans and gamers to find each other, chat, and share links. Founder Derek Liu probably best explained Gaia’s growth when he was interviewed in the site’s early days: “It seems that the growth of Gaia relied mainly on the word of mouth from our users.” And boy, did users talk. Gaia’s popularity as an online forum spread quickly, and continues to grow by leaps and bounds. Survey says that the current largest draw for Gaia, however, is its games.
Gaia’s website currently offers its users Cards (blackjack or 21), Slots (slot machines), Rally (a car racing game), Jigsaw (puzzles), Word Bump (for word geeks like myself), Fishing (I hope this doesn’t need explanation), Pinball (see note for Fishing), and Electric Love Factory (“fast paced puzzle action” according to the site). Many of these games allow users to “share a room” and play the games not necessarily together, but at least in a single window where they can see each other’s avatars and chat, an option that my two Gaia-uninitiated said would be a draw for them. As one twenty-one year old young lady put it, “it makes it fun to communicate with others while gaming.” The other (this one twenty-two) agreed, adding, “That sounds cool.” The latter also said that she would probably post in the forums, while the former did not think she would use that feature.
Gaia’s latest foray into online gaming has to be its most ambitious draw of all time, that being into the world of MMOs (massive multiplayer online games) with the recently released zOMG!, brought to us at last by the hardest working team I’ve ever seen. (If the juvenile, netspeak title is a turn-off to you, you are not alone. Many Gaians prefer the original title of the project, Battle, and still commonly refer to it as such.)
For someone who has dumped untold amounts into other MMOs, like World of Warcraft and its expansion the Burning Crusade, the largest perquisite Gaia’s MMO offers is that it is technically 100% free. For those impatient folk with expendable income (you know who you are), Gaia offers something called Gaia cash that may be purchased with real money. Five dollars gets you 500 GC, which can then be exchanged for items used in the game (though I, personally, have yet to see a reason anyone would do so given the high level of drops in the game of those very same items).
Like the rest of Gaia, the MMO is, well, cute. Perhaps the biggest turn-off to older potential users is the site’s overall cartoonish appearance, but then, that can also be a draw to the right people. (The cool ones.) But don’t let the cute stop you from trying out an enjoyable little MMO that really costs you nothing more than your time to play. How many of you play Ragnarok Online and/or Maple Story? Yeah, that’s what I thought.
But the best thing about Gaia isn’t the games or the avatars, but the community created by both. Let me briefly share with you my little story. I joined Gaia just after it first started in 2003, and met one of my now closest friends in the writing forums. She lives in California. I lived in Michigan. At Anime Expo in 2007, I attended a gathering of Gaians where I met another user who is now not only a dear friend, but one of my roommates. In fact, four of my five roommates have accounts on Gaia, and I now reside in California. It was through Gaia that I made these connections across-country that eventually made me decide to relocate.
I guess what I am saying here really boils down to this. If you spend time on the internet visiting social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, go to gaming sites like Yahoo! Games or Games.com, or are too poor to support your MMO habit any longer, you should definitely give Gaia Online a try. You never know where it might take you.